Lewis Hamilton has given a ringing endorsement of George Russell as a potential Formula 1 team-mate as expectations increase that Mercedes will replace Valtteri Bottas for 2022.
Bottas’s contract expires at the end of this year and Mercedes was openly choosing between him or Williams driver and Mercedes protege Russell to partner seven-time world champion Hamilton, who has signed a new two-year deal to the end of 2023.
Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said last weekend the team has made a decision but is waiting for the other driver’s future to be settled before announcing it, a message that was widely interpreted to mean Russell has been chosen given Bottas would need to find an alternative drive.
Previously, Hamilton has expressed his “loyalty” to Bottas and spoken fondly of the Finn, who he has described as a “fantastic team-mate”.
Hamilton even said earlier in the summer: “I don’t necessarily see that it needs to change.”
Bottas joined Mercedes in 2017 and helped the team move away from a difficult internal atmosphere that had developed while Hamilton was partnered with Nico Rosberg.
One of the risks of Mercedes picking Russell could be that the team returns to a more divisive dynamic given the 23-year-old may be a bigger threat to Hamilton’s position as de facto number one, with Red Bull driver Max Verstappen even claiming earlier on Thursday at Zandvoort that Russell would make things “very difficult” for Hamilton.
Asked how he thinks his relationship with Russell would be, Hamilton said: “I think it’d be quite good. I honestly think it’d be good.
“George is an incredibly talented driver, clearly. I would say probably the only highlight from last week [and the rained-off Belgian Grand Prix] was his qualifying lap [when Russell was second-fastest for Williams]. It was amazing.
“He’s humble. He’s got a great approach. Being British I imagine probably helps in terms of communication!
“At the moment I have to be super supportive of the team-mate that I have right now so that’s why I’m always supportive of Valtteri because we have a job to do right now and neither of us can win the team championship alone, we have to do it collectively.
“But he [Russell] is the future, he’s one of the members of the future of the sport. He’s already shown incredible driving so far. I’m sure it’s going to continue to grow.
“Where better to do it than a great team like this – or whatever team he goes to.”
Hamilton’s glowing comments about Russell do appear to mark a step change from previous messages in which he focused more about talking up Bottas and the role he has played in the four consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles won since the Finn joined Mercedes in 2017.
He made that it clear that if he is paired with Russell next year he sees no repeat of the acrimony that came in the Rosberg years or Hamilton’s rookie season alongside Fernando Alonso at McLaren in 2007.
“I don’t really feel like I have anything to prove,” said Hamilton.
“If it does turn out that I’ve got a new team-mate, I’m in a different place in my life.
“I’m excited to see the youngsters coming through. It’s not that I want to lose to a youngster naturally but I’m excited to see the progression because I am a fan of the sport.
“You’ve heard me early on in the year talk about Lando [Norris], it’s encouraging to see these youngsters coming through. They are fierce. I see a lot of myself in the younger generation, and I think they are what the sport’s gonna be reliant on moving forward.
“There’ll be things that we learn from one another. It’s important that naturally the respect is always there and communication will be at the core of that.
“We’ve got an amazing setting at our team in terms of morale, in terms of processes and how the team put their arms around the two drivers.
“That’s why we have harmony in our team, and I think we’re so much better prepared than we were in previous years, so it doesn’t really worry me.”
That final remark reflects Hamilton’s confidence that Mercedes has learned how to manage its drivers better since Rosberg retired in 2016.
He also believes Russell’s long Mercedes relationship, having initially worked as a test and reserve driver in 2018 and also replaced Hamilton in last year’s Sakhir Grand Prix when Hamilton had COVID-19, will help.
“When you start with someone new, even when we have a new engineer or a new mechanic, it takes a moment for them to gel,” said Hamilton.
“But George has already been on the circuit with us. He’s already done a race with the team, he’s already been in the background while Valtteri and I’ve been working in the past so I think he knows the environment well.
“But my focus right now is me and Valtteri have a job to do. And I’m proud to work alongside about Valtteri.
“He is a decent human being and I think that’s at the core of why I have the respect I have with him, and on top of that, he’s a fierce competitor. He never gives up, he just keeps pushing.
“He’s helped me deliver these championships with the team. I couldn’t have done it without him.”